Monday, May 22, 2006

The Wonderful World of Computers – A Personal Journey

The Wonderful World of Computers – A Personal Journey

Irving J. Arons

Since starting my Web Journal last December, I have joined the North Shore Computer Society and started writing for their monthly newsletter. This personal journey through the world of computers will be published in the June issue of the newsletter,, in an abbreviated version.


My first exposure to using a computer was in 1966 or 1967. I was working at the Exploratory Development Lab of United Carr, Inc. in Kendal Square, Cambridge, and the head of the lab decided that we needed a computer to work out the solutions to the experiments we were running. He bought and had installed a Mathatronics Mathatron (see Figure 1). This computer, invented by a couple of local guys from Waltham, was really a glorified programmable calculator, with a tape output. We learned how to program this computer and used it for calculating the results of our sometimes complex experiments.

(Courtesy of the Old Calculator Web Museum)

At the time, I was the secretary for the Temple Beth Shalom bowling league, and wrote a simple program that used the Mathatron to update the weekly bowling averages of the bowling league members. This was my first exposure to a working computer.


I next came into touch with a computer at my next job, as a consultant on the staff of Arthur D. Little, the world-wide technology and business consulting firm. I joined in March of 1969 and until the early 1980s, the secretaries used typewriters to prepare our proposals and reports from handwritten copy. I recall them using IBM Selectronics (with the moving ball instead of individual type keys). In 1981-1982, the secretaries got the first desktop IBM Personal Computers, the IBM PC (Figure 2), which made their jobs much easier, and provided us with much cleaner copies of proposals and reports.

It wasn’t until several years later, probably 1986, that the company started providing the professional staff with computers. My first computer was the so-called Compaq Portable II (Figure 3), an IBM-compatible computer. I’m not sure how a 30-pound computer could be called “portable”, but it was what it was and somehow I managed to lug it between the office and home when necessary. As I recall, the computer (with a small 9" green monochrome screen) used IBM DisplayWrite as its word processing program and also had Lotus 1-2-3 as a spread sheet.


Prior to getting the Compaq, I saw an ad in Popular Science in 1980 or 1981, for the Sinclair ZX 81 personal computer (Figure 4) available for about $150. This was really a toy, having a tiny membrane keyboard, a 1 kilobyte memory, expandible to 16 K with an add-on module, and using a TV monitor as its screen. It was programmed with “basic” and the programs could be saved using a recorder and played back into the computer the same way. It came with a “cookbook” of basic programs, but with the tiny keyboard, you could only build the program and run the computer one finger at a time. It ran real simple programs, like for converting F to C, etc. But, it was fun to be able to say that you owned and used a “computer” at the time.


Then about 1989 or 1990, ADL switched the staff over to the Compaq Laptop (Figure 5), the model SLT/286. This machine ran the Intel 80286 chip, had a decent 9 inch monochrome screen ( I also got a separate 15" color monitor that I could attach to the laptop for working in my office) and was loaded with Word Perfect 5.1 for DOS and Lotus 1-2-3. Word Perfect 5.1 was and remains the best word processing program I ever used. It has a feature called the “reveal” function, which shows the formatting coding associated with each word or line of type. This allows you to easily change (or correct) the format as you go.

March 1994

In March 1994, I retired after 25 years at ADL, and as my going-away gift, asked for and received my Compaq Laptop. As I was starting my own consulting company, I wanted the computer primarily to take advantage of the many proposal and report templates that ADL had created and loaded onto my computer. Since I wanted and needed a full time computer and more realistic screen at home for the new business, I splurged and got a custom-built desktop designed to my specifications by PC Warehouse in Waltham, MA. This computer was a 486x33, with a 250 MB hard drive and a built-in 14.4K modem. I also bought a 15" NEC color monitor and an HP laser printer, for a total price of $3500 (which, I thought was a good price at the time). I had the computer technicians at PC Warehouse copy my ADL DOS operating system from my Compaq Laptop into my new desktop.

November 1997

I soon outgrew this first desktop and went back to PC Warehouse in November 1997 for an upgrade. This time, the desktop was a Pentium 586x166 with a 3 GB hard drive and had a 33.6K modem (later upgraded to a 56K model). The cost just for the computer – I kept my old monitor and printer – was $1168. I had the good people at PC Warehouse, again install my old DOS operating system but, it also operated Windows 3.1. I had the hard drive partitioned, so that I could switch between the DOS mode, using my Word Perfect 5.1 and Lotus 1-2-3 programs, or into Windows 3.1 from the C:/ prompt. This way I could still operate in either DOS or Windows 3.1 – but at a much faster rate. The Windows side also had a version of Word Perfect (Word Perfect for Windows) and Lotus, but neither was as easy to use as the DOS versions.

January 2001

Finally, in January 2001, I gave in to my family and friends that kept telling my that I was operating in the dark ages with DOS and Win 3.1, and broke down and got a Gateway V933 PC, operating Windows 98. It came with Office 2000 installed, which contained Word, Excel, and PowerPoint (for presentations), and I bought and installed a newer version of Word Perfect (Version 7.1), along with Quattro Pro (the updated version of Lotus 1-2-3). This computer also had a read/write CD drive, a 20 GB hard drive, and a 16" flat screen monitor, at a cost of $1700. (I also bought an Epson Stylus 880 color inkjet printer for an additional $150.)

However, last July, the CD drive on the Gateway stopped working and I took the computer to a local repair shop (The Computer Store) to have it replaced. Somehow, they managed to screw up the operating system while replacing the CD drive and the new/replacement Windows 98 OS never worked as well as the original set up, causing me all kinds of aggravation.

September 2005 - Present

I decided it was time, to once again upgrade. This time I bought a Dell Dimension 3000 system, with an 80 GB hard drive and a 17" LCD monitor, operating with Windows XP. It came with Word Perfect 12 and Quattro Pro 12 installed. This system, bought in September 2005 was only $940, and works like a charm. (I did install my copy of Office 2000 on the computer as well, so that I can work with either Word or Word Perfect.)

(I also had my old Gateway refurbished, having Windows 2000 installed. That way I would have a workable back up system if my new Dell ever crashed. But, the Gateway takes forever to boot up, as long as 5-6 minutes, compared to the 1 to 2 minutes that Dell XP takes.)

So, in a rather long-winded way, you have my journey through the world of computers. From my early days of calculating bowling league averages on the Mathatronic, to today, when I use my Dell to stay in touch with the world via the world wide web and publish my blog – putting a lot of what I’ve written over the past twenty years into the public (and accessible) record.


At 9:54 PM, Blogger hedgehogman said...

you're a historical person. You have feel almost all computer era. You can make this a book.

At 10:44 AM, Blogger Patriotic Pilgrim said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 11:09 AM, Blogger Marian/Bonnie said...

Dr. Arons, Have you written a book? How many people can go back as far as you in the world of computers? You've created a riveting historical blog. Thanks.

At 1:04 PM, Anonymous San Diego plastic surgery said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 10:05 PM, Anonymous Martin Valentine said...

My friend Bill Kahn was one of "the local guys" who invented the Mathatron. I visited his shop in the old Waltham Watch Co. building before his company was bought out by a company named "Barry" some time in the late '50s or early 60s. We keep in touch, altho I am an MD and not a computer nerd at all.
Enjoyed your historical comments.
Martin Valentine

At 9:45 PM, Anonymous Emily Reach said...

My grandfather, Roy W. Reach, invented the Mathatron and held about 15 other electronic patents. He sold all of them to Hewlett Packard in the late 60s or early

I have many of his patents and original designs / sketches in my attic if you are interested in seeing them.

At 10:51 PM, Blogger Irv Arons said...


There is an excellent writeup about how the Mathatron came into being, including your grandfather's contribution, on the pages of the Old Calculater Web Museum site. Here is the link:

Perhaps the owner of the museum might be interested in your grand dad's patents and sketches.

Irv Arons

At 8:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am the Margaret mentioned in the Old Calculator Museum page about the Mathatron...a slight error as my name is really Marjorie. I enjoy reading all the items about the Mathatron as it is my family history. The third partner in the firm with my husband Roy and Bill Kahn was David Shapiro of Lincoln Mass.


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